Of all the health problems we hear about in our clinic, the most common are fatigue, brain fog, and weight gain. All of these are very complex, often without a single diagnosis.
Today’s article will tell you the first steps to take towards resolving these symptoms. Even more importantly, these steps will also start to address causes such as adrenal dysfunction and hormone imbalance (insulin, testosterone, estrogen, and more).
When evaluating fatigue and weight issues, we believe it is important first start with a good foundation, than look for a reason for abnormal function. This is the way of functional medicine - look for the cause and don’t just treat the symptoms. This isn’t for everyone - some are satisfied with just taking a pill or caffeine. However, to get to the root of the issue, you must always start with nutrition and lifestyle (specifically sleep, exercise, and stress).
Let’s explore what you can do, before getting bloodwork or seeing a doctor:
Step 1: Eat foods to support energy.
Optimal health rests on what you put in your mouth and the nutrients you absorb from these foods. Food provides the building blocks - the “ingredients” - of all hormone production. And we can't live without food and water, right? Whole foods, ideally organic, are a good source of necessary nutrients. In particular:
- foods high in fat-soluble vitamins (salmon, avocado, cod liver oil, olive oil) (at least 2-4 tablespoons of these are needed, per day)
- seaweed and sea vegetables (e.g. spirulina, 2 Tbsp per day)
- dark leafy bitter greens like dandelion and mustard greens (2-4 cups per day)
- colorful fruits/vegetables (berries, brightly colored vegetables, sweet potatoes)
- seeds and nuts (1/4 cup per day) - but NOT peanuts (these are a bean, and tend to promote inflammation and hunger)
Step 2: During the day, avoid the foods that cause sleepiness.
Namely, all white starches and grains (corn, wheat, rice, etc). This includes whole grains, as well as foods with sugar (including high sugar fruits). This means only eating vegetables, meats, and nuts/fats until the evening meal. If you're hesitant to commit to this, try for one week - if it helps, you could be one of the 90% of people who experience inflammation (and thus fatigue and resulting weight gain) with starches/grains/sugar.
If you feel better, you’ve identified a cause of your symptom(s). It’s not easy, but if it helps you feel better, isn’t it worth it? As a caution, all these foods elicit an addiction response in the brain (due to the glucose content), so your brain will crave these (i.e. withdrawal symptoms of headache, moodiness, etc). Stay strong - you can overcome the addiction!
Step 3: Address your stress.
Treating fatigue and weight gain without addressing chronic stress is futile in effort. And when we say address it, we don't mean you have to eliminate it. Stress comes in many forms, and everyone will respond to stress in different ways. In fact, keep in mind stress is not a thing - it is a reaction!
Stress can be physical (e.g. “tension”, poor sleep, too much or too intense exercise), or it can be emotional (relationships, work, etc). There’s also a form of stress known as adrenal dysfunction, which occurs when the body cannot continue to manage stress physiologically, which results in imbalances of the hormone cortisol.
The best place to start with stress management comes from identifying the stressors, then find one form of relaxation that works for you and do it every day, such as starting with 5 minutes of deep breathing, yoga or stretching (all of which decrease your heart rate, and stimulate the nervous system responsible for calming the entire body). A few helpful phone “apps” for meditation include Muse (measures brain “noise”), Headspace (3 - 10 minute guided meditations), and HeartMath ($99, involves a sensor that attaches to the earlobe, gives feedback as to how stress is affecting the body).
On another note, there can be hidden sources of stress, such as those from toxins we are exposed to everyday. Toxins bind to receptors that affect the production and the activity of your hormones. The biggest culprits are components found in plastic containers/cups/bottles/cans, fluoride (found in all tap and bottled water), chlorine, pesticides, processed foods, and in the weed killers/chemicals you put on your backyard (these chemicals wash into our drinking water, and aren’t eliminated through conventional water filtration). We can’t fully eliminate these, but we can be aware of this and start replacing plastic with glass, finding a good fluoride filter for drinking water, avoiding harsh chemicals in the home and on the lawn, and eating foods that are organic.
Step 4: Detox by sweating and moving daily.
Exercise can stimulate thyroid hormone secretion and improve tissue sensitivity to thyroid hormones. But keep in mind that if you feel anxious to work out or feel exhausted after a work out, you're causing stress on the body/mind (see previous step on stress). In this case, switch to walking and low impact exercises.
In addition to helping your hormones, sweating helps release toxins from the body. Your fat cells act like jail cells to keep toxins out of circulation, and as these cells try to shrink, they release toxins into the blood stream. These toxins can block your hormone production (including thyroid hormones, which are responsible for regulating metabolism). Eating enough healthy dietary fat and sweating will help get rid of these.
Step 5: Evaluate your sleep.
Sleep in today's society is under-rated. Sleep is when our body recharges hormones that are required for energy and good metabolism. Think of sleep like the cord that charges your cell phone battery - you need a full battery to get through the day. If you are tossing/turning, waking up frequently, going to bed too late, spending too much time in front of lighted screens, and more, that cord never gets consistently plugged into the wall to do its job.
Make sleep a priority!
Step 6: Make sure you're eating enough good quality protein.
Aim for half your body weight (in grams) of dietary protein (max of 100 grams per day). Ideally, this means a palm-sized amount of protein at each main meal.
And don't forget quality - if you're eating beef/poultry raised in a feed lot, you are ingesting the steroids and chemicals with which these meats are injected. That puts a toxin burden on your body, pushes those toxins into your fat cells making them increase in size, increases inflammation, and leads to more fatigue and weight issues.
There are many other things your can do to jump start optimal health. But you HAVE to have a good foundation. These 6 steps will get you started on your own journey towards improving health. If they don’t take care of your symptoms, find a practitioner to help, who can test for autoimmune issues, elevated insulin levels, cortisol imbalances, and more. Typically, this practitioner is going to be "integrative" or a functional medicine provider.
At the end of the day, you are in charge of the outcome of your health. Your doctor/practitioner can only identify the roadblocks and guide you towards the right path!
Best in health,
Meg McElroy MS, PA-C